Booking a cosy compartment on one of the many sleeper trains that run between St Petersburg and Moscow is a chance to relive the golden age of rail travel. And learn the rules of water polo...
There was a time when travelling by train evoked a sense of occasion and style, but rarely does that happen these days. However, the overnight train between St Petersburg and Moscow is one of the few journeys that still captures the elegance of the golden age of rail travel.
It begins with the buzz of the grand Moscow Station in St Petersburg, with its sprawling concourse, swarms of people and loudspeaker announcements in an unfamiliar language. This is the place to pick up the essentials for the journey, with a vast array of shopping kiosks to explore. Most offer alcohol of some description, so there should be no trouble picking up the ubiquitous bottle of vodka. All of the goods are displayed behind glass, so some knowledge of Russian is handy if you need something specific; otherwise, simply choose things that are near the counter so the stall holder can see you point. It is interesting to note that a shop selling guns is part of this collection of businesses catering to people stocking up for an overnight train trip.
There is a large choice of trains on this route. The cheapest are those that travel in daylight hours, but there is not much to see out of the window and you would be wasting precious time that could be better spent exploring St Petersburg’s stunning architecture. The night trains are the way to go, saving you the cost of a hotel for a night, and adding a touch of class to the journey.
Incredibly, there are about a dozen sleeper trains to choose from, offering different levels of service. Many have grand names, like Red Arrow, Severnaya Palmira and Megapolis, that add to the special atmosphere of the journey. It is quite something to see the evening ritual of these very, very long trains of different-looking carriages lined up along the platforms, their engines creating lots of impressive noise.
If money is no object, the privately operated Grand Express is the most luxurious option, marketed as a five-star hotel experience on rails. There are four classes of travel, with Grande De Luxe at the top end. These compartments have a television, DVD, ensuite bathroom with heated floor, bathrobes and slippers. A range of snacks and drinks and access to a private bar are thrown in for good measure. You can expect to pay over £600 for a two-berth room.
There are many other trains where you don’t have to fork out as much, but will still get that chic experience. I settled on the Nikolaevsky Express, a sort of faux czar-era creation of velvet-lined compartments and brass-buttoned carriage attendants. It is named in honour of Emperor Nicholas I, who initiated construction of the railway. There is an urban myth that Nicholas drew the path of the future railroad on a map, using a ruler placed between Moscow and St Petersburg. He attempted to draw a straight line, but his finger was slightly sticking out, leaving the railroad with a small curve. In actual fact, the curve was added at a later date to circumvent a steep gradient that was giving the trains a hard time.
My first-class compartment was very plush, with crisp bed linen, newspapers, flowers and a tea set embossed with the train’s logo. If you are on your own, you have to share with one other person, which is a great opportunity to meet a local. I travelled with Serg, who told me that he played for the national water polo team. With the aid of a bottle of vodka, pen and paper, the rules of his sport suddenly became very clear.
Serg lived up to the legendary Russian hospitality and ordered delicious snacks from the dinning car. Caviar canapés were brought to our compartment on elegant trays, the perfect accompaniment to vodka shots. Classic Russian lemon tea arrived in a glass with an engraved silver holder. When I offered to pay for some of this, Serg burst out laughing, “No problem. I am mafia, plenty of money.”
I greeted the morning arrival in Moscow with a sore head, but the perfect hangover cure is only three metro stops from Leningradsky station. The Sandunovsky Banya (ul Neglinaya, 14; www.sanduny.ru; metro station, Kuznetsky Most) are the city’s most popular public baths, with steam rooms of varying temperatures, and the sort of place that you could imagine featuring in a spy film. The rooms are palatial, with statues, marble staircases, frescos, high ceilings and columns. For about £20, you can spend a couple of hours relaxing in the heat and hitting yourself with birch twigs (to assist with circulation). It really is the most perfect way to end an overnight train journey.
How to book the train
You can do this through Real Russia (www.realrussia.co.uk), whose online booking facility is simple to use. Once you select your travel dates, it presents you with a list of the available trains, including those with a name, so that it will be easy for you to pick out Nikolaevsky Express. It clearly shows what classes of travel are available and how much this will cost, so a quick comparison is very easy. The first-class twin-berth compartment on Nikolavesky Express is about £100 per person, sharing with a stranger if you are on your own. The second-class compartment costs half that much, sharing with three other travellers.
Where to stay...
...in St Petersburg
St Petersburg International Hostel is within walking distance of Moscow Station, so very convenient for the sleeper train. The dorm rooms (from £12 to £14 per night) have parquet floors and there is a friendly atmosphere, with fellow travellers excited to be in this beautiful city. The hostel also offers visa support, with full instructions on their website on how to apply for a tourist visa.
... in Moscow
The Stalinist neoclassical Zolotoy Kolos Hotel offers economy double/twin rooms for £50 per night. They are a bit threadbare, with faded carpets and peeling wallpaper, but the hotel is only a five-minute walk from one of Moscow’s greatest communist-era attractions, the All-Russian Exhibition Centre. This huge park is full of pavilions celebrating the economic achievements of the USSR. You can expect towering Lenin statues, space rockets, the hammer and sickle and grand fountains. The hotel is four metro stops from Leningradsky station, changing trains at Prospekt Mira - actually a delightful task, because this is one of the most beautiful metro stations. It's chandeliers, white marble pillars, sculptures and a granite chessboard-patterned floor will make you want to linger.